Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed

Article by   December 2008
calvinguide.jpgCalvin: A Guide for the Perplexed
By Paul Helm
T & T Clark (October 2008)
175 p.


Are you perplexed by Calvin, dear reader? Do you find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about, yet you can't be bothered to read the mighty Institutes? Wasn't he just a one-note theologian who just kept harping on about predestination? If I am describing you here, then you need this book. Paul Helm, one of our foremost interpreters of Calvin has provided us with an accessible introduction to the theology of the great Protestant Reformer.

Beginning with 'Orientation', Helm gives us a brief sketch of Calvin's life and work. He insists that the Reformer must be understood in his own historical context. We should not anachronistically read developments in later Calvinistic theology back into the mind of Calvin. Neither should me make him a participant in controversies that only erupted after his death. His position on 'limited atonement' is a case in point. Also, we should not commit the error of thinking that Calvin was a 'pure biblical theologian', who rejected all that scholastic theology had to offer. While he usually avoided the speculative excesses of scholasticism, Calvin wasn't above using the insights of Aquinas and others when it suited his purpose.

In his exposition of of some of the main themes in Calvin's theology, Helm follows the contours of the Reformer's magmum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. He begins by reflecting on Calvin's great statement in the Institutes that 'Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.' For Calvin the whole point in doing theology (although me did not like that term) was to gain wisdom that we might live for the glory of God. God has revealed himself to us in creation. Each human being has a sense that God exists, the sensus divinitas. In our sin we distort and suppress the witness of the sensus, but a sense of God cannot be totally eradicated from the human heart. We know enough to be held accountable for our unbelief and idolatry. If we are to be saved from sin, we need God to reveal himself to us as our redeemer. He has done this in Holy Scripture, where God accommodates himself to our capacities that we might know him as our Saviour in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit authenticates the Scriptures to the believer so that the Bible is received as the very Word of God.

God has revealed himself to us in Scripture as One God in three persons; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Helm gives consideration to Calvin's teaching on God in Trinity. The Reformer would have preferred a minimalist doctrine of the Trinity, saying, 'I wish, indeed that such names [theological terms like person, substance, etc] were buried, provided all would concur in the belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit, are one God, and yet that the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but each has his peculiar subsistence.' But in order to clarify and safeguard the truth in the face of heresy, Calvin was willing to employ the traditional formula that in the one divine essence there are three persons. Contrary to more speculative teaching on the begotteness of the Son, the Reformer stressed that the Son did not receive his deity from the Father. He is autotheos, God in his own right alongside the Father and the Spirit. In the Godhead there is an order of persons; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but no gradation of deity.

Next Helm moves with Calvin to focus attention on the Son. His conception of the person of Christ was in full accord with Chalcedonian orthodoxy. He stressed that when the Son became man, he did not stop being God. In his humanity, the Son was finite, subject to the restrictions of time and place. While in his deity the Son was infinite, eternal and omnipresent, upholding all things by the word of his power. The communion of attributes in the Son did not entail the transfer of divine properties to the humanity of Jesus. When Scripture speaks of the 'Lord of glory' being crucified (1 Corinthians 2:8), or the church being purchased by God's blood (Acts 20:28), we are not to understand that divine nature suffered death, but that Jesus, a divine Person suffered in his humanity.

Calvin considered the work of Christ in terms of his biblically assigned offices of prophet, priest and king. Helm follows that pattern, drawing attention first of all to Christ's priestly, sacrificial death. Did Calvin follow Anselm in teaching that the atonement was necessary to satisfy God's offended honour? Or was his thinking more in line with Augustine, who argued that the cross was the best way of salvation, although God might have delivered us from sin apart from Calvary? The Reformer seems to oscillate between these two views. In some places he stresses the necessity of the atonement, in others he suggests that God saved us through the death of his Son to reveal the depth of his grace and love. Helm understands Calvin to be saying that God could have saved us apart from the cross had he so wished, but in order to provide the fullness of salvation that we now experience in Christ, Jesus had to die. He argues that such a construction provides a helpful response to the Socinians, who, after Calvin's day, sneered at the idea that Christ had to die for God to forgive. But I'm not so sure. I prefer John Murray's proposal, which he called with his customary precision, the 'consequent absolute necessity' of the atonement. (See Chapter 1 of Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Banner of Truth Trust, The Necessity of the Atonement). Murray seeks to demonstrate from Scripture that consequent to God's gracious and loving decision to save sinners from wrath and judgement, it was necessary for Christ to die to secure our salvation. This view takes account both of God's amazing love in providing a Redeemer and his absolute justice in punishing sin in the death of Christ.

One of Calvin's key theological achievements was recognising the importance of the New Testament's teaching on union with Christ. He dismissed the medieval teaching on the value of human merit in salvation, insisting that God owes sinners nothing. Salvation comes through God graciously uniting us to Christ by his Spirit. In Christ believers receive the 'double benefit' of justification and sanctification. Justification and sanctification are conceptually distinct.

Justification is God's declaration that a sinner is righteous in his sight, on the basis of Christ's finished work, received by faith alone. Works don't come into it. Sanctification an act of spiritual transformation, which leads to a holy life. By virtue of the believer's union with Christ, we are both justified and sanctified. It is impossible to have the one aspect of salvation apart from another. This pulls the rug from under the Roman Catholic charge that the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone was antinomian.

But not all are brought to saving faith in Christ. Why is it that some believe and others do not? This brings Helm to discuss Calvin's doctrine of predestination. Some think that predestination was the governing axiom of Calvin's theology, but this is not the case. His doctrine was based on his understanding of Scripture, especially Romans 8 and Ephesians 1. God has chosen to save some sinful human beings, simply on the basis of his free grace and love. He has chosen not to save others. They will suffer his just wrath for their sin. How can we know if we are among the elect? We cannot peer into God's hidden decree of salvation. Calvin advises us to look to Christ, whom he describes as 'the mirror of our election'. If we are united to him by faith, then we can be assured that we were chosen in him before the foundation of the world. Calvin's Christ-centered doctrine of election helps to save the Christian from despairing of ever knowing if his name is written in the Book of Life.

Calvin has a reputation (perhaps not altogether undeserved) of being a little tetchy and austere. Helm helps to redress the balance with his exploration of the Reformers view of the Christian life. Calvin believed that God, in his creation and providence has showered mankind with many gifts. We are to receive these gifts with joy as tokens of God's goodness. Calvin was not ascetic. He ridiculed those who had scruples over eating good food and wearing comfortable and attractive clothing. He emphasised that all Christians are called to serve the Lord, whatever their line of work. But while this life is not to be despised, we are driven by the sufferings of this world to long for the joys of everlasting glory in our heavenly home.

John Calvin was profoundly interested in church life. He worked tirelessly to reform the church in Geneva, seeking to establish the work on a more biblical pattern. He was realistic enough not to expect perfection in the visible church, which he distinguished from the invisible church, comprising of all God's elect. But is Helm right to speculate that Calvin left open the possibility that there might be 'anonymous Christians', those who have made no profession of faith, but are still to be regarded as 'Christian' in some way? It is difficult to know what Calvin might have thought about this. But judging from the way he railed against the Nicodemites of his day, who wanted to keep their Christian identity hidden, I think the possibility of Calvin countenancing Karl Rahner-style 'anonymous Christians' has been prised open by Helm rather than left open by the Reformer. It is one thing to say that a person may be elect without being a member of the visible church. No argument there. For a variety of reasons, such anomalies do occur. It is another thing to say that a person may be a Christian without hearing and accepting the gospel of Christ. Is Helm falling into the trap against which he warned against earlier in the book, of making Calvin a conversation partner in modern debates over 'anonymous Christians', about which he knew nothing?

Under the heading of the Church, Helm also gives attention to Calvin's thinking on Baptism and the Lord's Supper. The Reformer disliked Luther's teaching on the latter sacrament. Luther argued that in being glorified, the humanity of Christ took on the property of omnipresence. Because of that his flesh can be with and under the bread and wine at the Supper. For Calvin, this view displayed a terrible misunderstanding of the communion of attributes in the Person of Christ, and compromised the reality of our Lord's continued incarnate life. But he also disagreed with Zwingli's doctrine, which made the Lord's Supper little more than a trip down memory lane. Calvin proposed that Christ is present at the Table by his Spirit. The Spirit compresses the distance between the believer and the flesh of the ascended Christ as we feed upon him by faith at the Lord's Supper.

What of the relation between Church and Society? Calvin believed that it was the duty of the civil magistrate to uphold both tables of the law. It was this idea got Calvin into trouble in the Servetus case. Servetus was an anti-trinitarian heretic, who was arrested on visiting Geneva. He was sentenced to be burnt at the stake by the Genevan authorities. Calvin asked that he should executed more humanely. But he still consented to the judicial killing of Servetus for the 'crime' of heresy. Helm certainly does not exonerate Calvin for his role in this affair. Calvin was a man of his time. But his knowledge of the gospel of Jesus should have taught him better. This sorry episode reminds us that even our great heroes have their blind spots. The powers of the state should not be used to suppress heresy. The church's weapon against false teaching is the sword of the Spirit. We must be willing to suffer and die for the truth, but never kill for it.

On a lighter note, Helm wonders if Calvin expected that cultural products, resulting from common grace might carry through into the new creation. Will we hear the strains of Bach, Brahms and even Pink Floyd in the world to come? Coldplay and Radiohead maybe, but surely not Pink Floyd. Pretentiously long and complex prog-rock guitar solos in the glory? Please no! Unless that is, Carl Trueman and his ilk are going to be allowed a sound-proofed space of their own in some remote corner of the new earth. In fairness, Helm wonders if his suggestion might be too fanciful to be authentically Calvinian. But there may be something in what he says. Consider Revelation 21:24-26 and see Cornelis P. Venema's comments in The Promise of the Future, Banner of Truth Trust, 2000, p. 480-482.

In the final chapter, Helm discusses 'Calvin and Calvinism', tracing some of the continuities and discontinuities between Calvin and the movement he spawned. The radical discontinuity theories of R. T. Kendall and the likes are rejected. But it is interesting to note that staples of later Reformed orthodoxy such as the 'covenant of redemption' and the 'federal headship' of Adam are not to be found in Calvin himself.

Paul Helm has provided us with a first class introduction to Calvin's thought in all its grandeur and breadth. There is certainly more to Calvin than predestination. He gives us invaluable insight into the nature of biblical revelation, the Trinity, and Christ in his offices of Prophet, Priest and King. His teaching on salvation through union with Christ, and the gift of 'double grace' in him, is especially helpful. What he has to say on living the Christian life is full of practical wisdom. This guide will help the perplexed. I hope that it will also stimulate the reader to get better acquainted with the theological legacy of John Calvin, great Genevan Reformer.

Guy Davies is a minister in South West England.

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